Mr music man: Geoff Lakeman
PUBLISHED: 12:00 08 March 2016
He’s the affable and passionate journalist whose sons have made the family name synonymous with musical talent. But now Geoff Lakeman is grabbing back some of the spotlight for his own musical efforts, as Alexis Bowater discovers
Hear the name Lakeman around the lanes, moors and tors of Devon and it’s the musical boys of the family who spring to mind: the guitar player, the fiddler and the pianist (Sean, Seth and Sam).
But it’s their father, the patriarch of this family, who is jointly responsible for their talent and who is now, after nearly four decades of national journalism, getting his own rave reviews for music.
As we talk in his old, listed house on the edge of the moor he casually picks up a book on a stack beside him and reads the warm personal dedication inside. It’s from Alastair Campbell – de facto this country’s deputy Prime Minister in the Blair years - who was discovered as a cub reporter by Geoff and trained by him under the Mirror Group scheme before his ascent went stellar.
It’s an easygoing demonstration of how priceless and astonishing his contacts book must be. He casually mentions some of those he interviewed when working in London before returning to his West Country roots.
“I’ve interviewed The Beatles, Marlene Dietrich, Ted Heath and other Prime Ministers, and endless film stars and pop artists,” he reels them off.
Those of us lucky enough to meet him covering stories here in the West Country will attest to his charm, professionalism, intellect, good humour and warm, generous company.
Every major story that you have read that has come out of this neck of the woods during the last near-40 years has been either written, broken, or covered by him.
His friendly, smart, funny, twinkly presence was ubiquitous and it’s no wonder people found it easy to talk to him.
He reported from the press benches at Barnstaple Magistrates’ Court when Norman Scott declared his homosexuality, dragging MP Jeremy Thorpe into one of the biggest political scandals in English history.
He befriended the family of missing East Devon Schoolgirl, Genette Tate, followed the story and believes to this day that notorious child killer Robert Black who died this January, taking his secret to his grave, abducted her.
But it is the sinking of the Penlee Lifeboat off Penzance on Christmas Eve 1981 that haunts this Cornishman even now. For having been born and brought up in Penzance and Newlyn it was his friends, his almost-family, his community who were all wrapped up in an horrific breaking story on his patch that he had the responsibility of reporting to the whole world.
His professionalism throughout was unwavering. One night, phoning copy through to The Mirror, he was asked by Fleet Street’s finest ever Editor Richard Stott, to create a timeline of the tragedy.
“I was filing my copy from a phone box on Penzance promenade in a pool of something unmentionable with all the windows knocked out and Richard was on the other end of the phone steadying me,” he recalls.
For more than two hours, with the winter wind and waves still blowing over a red phone box on a Cornish seafront, this young man recounted the awful tale of the Solomon Browne and the fate of the eight-man crew, some of whom he knew and drank with in the local pubs, trying to explain to the world what their sacrifice was for.
In its wake, the cold decisions of government came up against a formidable combination of Cornish passion and tabloid campaigning.
“The thing I was most proud of was that The Mirror, above all the other papers, campaigned to raise money for the widows and everything else,” explains Geoff. “And then the government said ‘oh any monies raised will be taxable’ and The Mirror went potty.” While the paper battled bureaucracy in London, locally an eclectic committee just got on with the grim matter of supervising the distribution of incoming donations.
“Each night we sat round the billiard table in the Fishermen’s Mission and they dumped all this money and there was thousands and thousands and thousands,” recalls Geoff. “There were eight victims, eight families, and to stop the taxman or the government getting involved we just counted it into eight piles every night and then put all the monies into eight envelopes and then the fishermen who knew them went round the houses in Newlyn and Mousehole and put it through the door. And they did that as long as the money kept coming in.
“I just loved them. These were my people. Which is why it was so hurtful. I had grown up as a schoolboy fishing and swimming in that harbour and to be there and part of that was just so emotional. And it was cheering in the wake of that disaster that it did give everybody a reason for carrying on.”
Many more emotional tales were to be covered in his astonishing print career, but none as heartbreaking as that. This new chapter though is an astonishing tale of its own. For now he’s gone back to his musical roots and the star-maker may eclipse his own stars. Rave reviews for his performances call him “riveting”, “a true professional” and “a stalwart of the West Country folk scene and the father of a virtual folk dynasty”.
Before any of his boys were even a twinkle in anyone’s eye he and his beloved violinist wife Joy were making real music together, having met aged 22 and 18 in folk club The Royal Oak Pub in London’s Bayswater. Despite Geoff’s inability to read music and having never, even to this day, had a music lesson, they formed the “A40 Improvement Scheme” ceilidh band and a musical dynasty was born. Geoff recalls touring around the country with Sean in a carrycot at the back of the stage and a succession of babies in Joy’s tummy. No wonder they raised a family of boys of such astonishing musical capability - they were learning before they were born.
The touring stopped as the boys grew. But now, with his startling writing career behind him, it’s Geoff taking the stage back playing the rare Crane Duet concertina, singing and performing self-written and West Country folk songs. Although in the intervening years he has musically supported his famous sons, he’s again being booked in his own right at festivals from Cornwall to Orkney to which he and Joy will road trip in their VW Camper Van in May.
“It’s a lot of fun isn’t it!?” he enthuses. “It’s like a paid hobby, but it’s better than owning a boat and throwing £20 notes in the wake of it off the stern. Joy and I have inspired the boys in their music, but it’s great now to be able to do my own thing, it’s lovely,” he says.
“I think the boys are quite bemused,” adds Joy.
He shows me his concertina collection and gives a quick impromptu demonstration of effortless skill and a sweet pure voice. Understated, under-recognised, underrated, this is man of astonishing music talent.
We’re interrupted by the arrival of the youngest of his famous sons Seth and a pair of beautiful looking twin grandchildren. Between Geoff and Joy they have seven grandchildren and each of their sons have had twins. To them he may be just grandpa but to future audiences lucky enough to see him, he’s the original talent stepping out of the shadows of the musicians he made.
Geoff will be doing gigs on Friday, 4 March, at The Plough Arts Centre, Torrington; 21 April in Sheffield and 8 May at Morwellham Folk Festival.
Ten things Geoff Loves about Devon
1. Informal music sessions with musicians at the Drake Manor Inn in Buckland Monachorum, the King’s Arm’s in South Zeal, the Oak in South Brent, the Rugglestone Inn at Widecombe and the Dolphin on Plymouth’s Barbican.
2. The stunning 360 degree view of Dartmoor from the top of Pew Tour on Whitchurch Common.
3. Double Waters - the confluence of the Tavy and Walkham Rivers.
4. Tavistock’s ancient Pannier Market - especially Bob’s East End Café!
5. The sheer agricultural/rural bliss of Widecombe Fair.
6. The footpath from my back gate up onto Dartmoor.
7. Skylarks soaring - and singing - on the high moors.
8. Sea trout and salmon leaping on the West Dart and Tavy rivers.
9. My neighbours in the village where I have lived for 38 years.
10. Fresh fish landed at Brixham and Plymouth.
Ten things you didn’t know about Geoff
1. He refuses to use the dishwasher- and still washes up by hand.
2. He taught himself to play the spoons while Joy was in 24-hour labour with eldest son Sean.
3. He once competed in the national canoe sprint championships.
4. He has swum in the wild on the back of a humpback whale, with basking sharks and with a bottlenose dolphin.
5. He enjoys growing vegetables.
6. He keeps Pekin Lemon Cuckoo bantam chickens.
7. He has trained four working spaniel gundogs.
8. He doesn’t believe in ironing.
9. He tried to persuade the family band to perform at a nudist camp in France - they rebelled!
10. He spent the first 18 months of his life in a Penzance hospital with acute eczema.